More heat than light

Spouting opinions, propaganda, and downright lies and then pretending they are true is not a new national pastime.   Just watch “Reefer Madness”, or, if you have the stomach for it, any number of mid-century racial diatribes based on fear and hate.  By the way, I’m not just talking Trump – although it’s been estimated that he tells one falsehood for every 5 minutes of talk .  No, everyone does it to a greater or lesser degree. The difference is that

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

some people allow evidence to sway them, whereas others admire the pure brass-balled denial of evidence even when it is staring you in the face. This is called “having faith” and is considered a virtue.

Most of us feel awful when admitting to evidence that contradicts a deeply held belief.  This is what the experts (people with B.A.s in psychology) term cognitive dissonance,  and

Cognitive dissonance is the worst kind of dissonance!

no one likes that!  How can you tell if this is happening to you?   One symptom is the amount of heat the evidence generates.   If you get all emotional, it’s a sign something else is going on.  Another symptom lies within the toolkit of conspiracy theorists   (“NASA faked the moon landing”, or “Humans aren’t causing climate change”, or “GMO is dangerous to humans and/or the environment”) wherein one picks or rejects evidence to fit the theory at hand, rather than the other way around.

The best way to prove a theory (or a hypothesis, or an idea, or a notion) is to set out to disprove it. If you can’t, then you’re on the right track. If, for example, I like the idea that NASA faked the moon landing, I’d need some evidence to disprove the statement that “the moon landing was faked”.   Being able to bounce a laser off a mirror that was left there by astronauts would count as evidence that disproved the notion that NASA faked the landing. Chemical analysis of moon rocks in the possession of various institutions would also count.

At least, for most people, it would.

Spoiler: Paul was not actually dead.

Others would (and have) said things like, “Sure, you can bounce a laser off the moon, but that’s because NASA sent a mirror up there without any astronauts”.  “All the so-called chemists who tested the so-called moon rocks were in on the conspiracy”.

This proves pirates made it to the moon!

When you meet people saying this type of thing, you’re better off just smiling and walking the other way unless you enjoy that type of thing. If you are talking evidence, and they’re talking belief, there will be no common meeting ground.  Evidence won’t sway them, and you’ll be there all day.  But for most people, evidence is powerful, and so is lack thereof. Just ask this guy.

Although you can’t sway an irrational belief in a single person, evidence that builds over time will sway others.  After a few decades, the number of people who hold any one irrational belief diminishes.  The belief dies out.  Hardly anyone seriously believes the earth is flat these days, or that the sun orbits it.  Every now and then an old medieval chestnut rears its ugly head, but only on Twitter.

Spot the astrophysicist

There are lots more fun conspiricies of bygone eras, such as fluoride as a mind-control communist plot , or my personal favorite that Paul McCartney died years ago and Elvis didn’t die, that the Titanic never sank, or that the Freemasons killed William Morgan and the Jesuits started the French Revolution.

This year, the US is having a fun-filled election that is being watched far and wide. Heat is being generated at an alarming rate, and reasoned speech has been tossed out the window.  The evidence is getting trampled underfoot, but I’m sure it will all simmer down eventually. Before I run out of metaphors to mix, here are some ideas that may help.

First, use data. An example we can all relate to:

Me: “It’s nice and warm today!”

The Hub: “Crank up the heat! I’m freezing!”

Friend from Michigan: “Let’s go swimming!”

Aunt in Dominican Republic: “Ay, Dios Mio! The world is ending!”

Rewind. Let’s see if we can find the factual evidence buried in the judgment calls.

Me: “It’s 60 degrees right now, going up to 65. I find this to be pleasant walking weather.”

bathing suit snow
A fine day for a dip.

The Hub: “It’s 60 degrees right now, and I’m not setting a toe outside until it’s 80 because I am cold-averse. I prefer to stay indoors and turn the steam on until I am able to walk about indoors wearing only shorts and flip-flops in order to simulate the tropical setting in which I’m most at ease.”

Friend from Michigan: “I’ll be wearing a bathing suit, since 60 degrees is as warm as gets in Ann Arbor this time of year, and anyway, I have antifreeze in the veins.”

Aunt in DR: “I haven’t experienced anything colder than 72 degrees since 1987, so I feel sure that a 60 degree air temperature is a precursor to the end of the world as predicted by my friends and neighbors.”

This fictional scenario illustrates that, although the subjective experience can vary widely, everyone has agreed that 60 degrees is what it reads on the thermometer.  It’s the interpretations of this data that varies so widely.

Next Scenario.

Most of the time, we act rationally. If it’s in your interest to look at the evidence, you’ll do it.

I weighed the evidence, and you’re lying!

Prior Car Owner:   “Yep, this ’95 Toyota is a great deal.  A real beauty.  Hardly ever drove it, myself.  Has years of service left in it.”

After a quick inspection, you determine that the odometer reads 300,000 miles, there are small irregularly-shaped rust patches all over the body, a crack spreads across the windshield, and flames shoot out the tailpipe when the thing is turned on.

You don’t have any problem rejecting the idea that “this is a great deal”, as the evidence seems to contradict it.   Your money is on the line, not your belief system. No, in these cases, you’re Judge Judy. You’ve heard the claims, you’ve weighed the evidence, and you’ve snorted derisively. Gavel down, case dismissed!

The problem comes when the emotions and beliefs are involved, when fear or hope is driving the bus, and when the evidence is not something that can be experienced directly with our five senses. So here’s a handy guide to help everyone make smart choices this year.

  1. Consider the source. Yes, an advanced degree in medical research from a major university DOES outweigh an academy award, IF we’re talking about medicine.
  2. Motives don’t count as evidence. Monsanto is highly motivated to get GMO accepted since they stand to make a mint – but that, in and of itself, is not evidence for or against GMO safety.
  3. Yelling doesn’t count as evidence.  Liking or disliking someone doesn’t count as evidence.
  4. Numbers outweigh words. You can make the most eloquent speech about the beauty of this beachfront property, the unbelievable low price, the built-in grilling station, and how wonderful the quality of life is, but if it’s 5 feet above sea level and the last 5 hurricanes have created a ten-foot or more surge, then you can rest assured your house will be flooded sometime in the near future. Factor that into the decision.
  5. History counts. Charlie Brown was an idiot for letting Lucy talk him into kicking a football. Take a look at the track record.

    Past data suggests taking a different approach.
  6. Numbers outweigh words. This is so important, I’m including it twice.  A powerful anecdote can change minds and can “feel right”. If the stats don’t add up, then it’s time to revisit the belief.





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